Adoption, Anxiety, Altogether Now

That uneasy feeling from morning to night. Often invisible. Uncertainty amid structure and routine. Overwhelming fear when least expected.

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Phobias. Obsessions. Panic Attacks. Depression around nearly every corner.

All very real.

Fact is I just described each of my six children – all of whom came into my life through adoption between the ages of three and ten.

Sadly, hardly anyone fully “gets” the anxiety piece associated with adoption. They merely see their inattention, distractibility, social withdrawal and lack of initiation. Living in the moment with little regard for the future, much less next week.

Act right for heaven’s sack.

At various points in elementary school, all of my kids were diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed stimulant medication. It reduced symptoms for two but made the other four more anxious. And irritable.

That’s right. Anxiety can look like ADHD, even when it’s not.

Moreover, no one ever told me 20 years ago that adoption is trauma. I know better now. And early trauma is the root of my children’s anxiety. Every prospective parent deserves to read The Adoption Letter – The One I Never Received which I wrote several years ago.

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Although I encouraged open conversations without judgment in my home, many intimate feelings remained buried below the surface. Secrets. Half-truths. Lies. Very common in adoptive families.

But those thoughts came alive in private – romanticized, fantasized, growing bigger than life. No wonder several of my sons had trouble falling asleep. Others lived in another world during the day.

Then add the endless and mindless chatter over which I had little control.

My children heard the overused yet ignorant statements far too often, “You’re so lucky that your father adopted you” on one hand “What happened to your real parents?” on the other. The empty yet polite looks on their faces spoke volumes.

At school. During church. In the neighborhood. Among extended family members. The same statements freely expressed hundreds of times.

As if everything was about me for “saving” them – and never focusing on them. My actions overshadowing their feelings – even though those words never flowed from my mouth.

Shut up and be grateful was all they seemed to hear.

STOP! My children’s sense of worth is more important than me.

In my children’s developing minds, no one fully understood or cared to understand. Only a handful ever asked about their intimate thoughts and responded appropriately. Few willing to invest the time.

In other words, their behaviors were all that mattered.

Keep your feelings to yourself. Leave the past in the past.

Truth be told, one empathetic father can’t undo a chorus of like minds singing the same refrain. I tried. And tried again and again and again – unable to erase opinions that my precious ones eventually interpreted as fact.

For years they assumed everyone hid their feelings. Wore a mask. Played the game of life.

That meant coping in less-than-healthy ways. From biting nails and overeating to isolating and identifying with other so-called “undesirables” on the fringe. Toying with self-harm. Cutting.

When they eventually took the risk to share their innermost thoughts with an adult deemed safe, few – if any – felt their emotional pain. Dismissed again.

Why can’t you just be happy. You really need to move on.

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Others put the blame on me – which was the last thing my children needed to hear.

Creating doubts. Triggering the past. After all, I was their predictable rock – whether they acknowledged my role or not. They knew and couldn’t handle the scrutiny.

And much of the time, I was out of the loop – not by choice. Of course, I speculated and remained emotionally available. Yet my kids didn’t want to disappoint me. Fear of the unknown will do that. Would I love them less? Would I judge? Would I turn my back like so many in the past?

An adolescence filled with so many unanswered questions. And shame.

Why did my birthmother drink alcohol during pregnancy?

Why didn’t anyone intervene?

Where were my grandparents, aunts and uncles?

Why did my foster parents say horrible things about my family?

Am I doomed to repeat their mistakes?

Where did I get my talents?

Yet why am I afraid of success?

Is being stubborn a genetic trait?

Who do I look like?

Would they want to know me now?

Wow! Did I mention their anxiety is real?

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Bottom line, my children desperately needed success in something on an ongoing basis – when failure became the norm.

More importantly, they needed someone – besides me – to believe in them. To offer guidance in a compassionate and patient way. To stick with them until completion of the task at hand.

Don’t give up on me, as I attempt to push you away.  

My daughter finally found that person in a retired professional woman from church – mentoring her for a decade.

My oldest son found that person in a teacher in juvenile prison – refusing to accept anything but a diploma.

My middle son found that person in an inclusive community of athletes – accepting him just as he is.

My next son found that person in a neighbor – listening to him sing and gently offering meaningful feedback in the moment.

All as young adults, not teens or tweens. I admit most were not readily available to open their hearts when younger. That’s why we parents must stay the course.

Yet two of my sons never found that person with similar commitment or sincerity. Their cup remains half-empty.

Then the perils of drug use and addiction ran their course upon turning 18, more than I care to admit. Numbing feelings. Blinding the truth. Escaping with others who validate their anxiety.                  

Thus the parenting journey continues, as anxiety ebbs and flows. Doing my best to always keep my home a safe and shame-free space. Because no quick fixes exist.

Will I “walk in their shoes”? Or will I overlook and under-appreciate their reality. 

The choice is mine.  DCP

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Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Athlete & Advocate

4 thoughts on “Adoption, Anxiety, Altogether Now

  1. Thank you once again for your insight, and challenging words. Anxiety, how I’ve grown to hate it and yet I’m beginning to better understand my daughter’s daily struggle and just how wonderfully determined she is as she moves forward in spite of anxieties constant presence and controlling ways. We’ve just had the experience of her loosing a job, one she was well qualified for because of anxiety and panic attacks. She is a Registered Early Childhood Educator. Her supervisor’s constant “typically” being tossed at her devastated her and she couldn’t function. I don’t know what the future will hold. I trust that God has a plan. In the meantime, our home will be a haven for her. I will listen even when I feel like it’s killing me and give thanks for the treasure she is.

    1. Thank you for sharing. The anxiety for our young adults in the workplace is invisible yet very real. They want to fit in – but need an anchor who displays compassion when needed. We need more employers willing to connect and bring our the best in our children – because they can do great things with the right environment.

  2. Ahhhh that old foe anxiety.
    My son does have ADHD but he also has crippling anxiety, teamed with hypervigilance and a default setting of self sabotage and self worthlessness.
    I sometimes in the moment forget that the behaviour stems from fear as it looks so far removed from what we are programmed to recognise fear as.

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